Is there any point in IEEE GOLD?
In an attempt to find purpose, I play devil’s advocate against IEEE GOLD itself.
I’m a graduate engineer. I work 40-hour weeks, mainly in front of a computer, sometimes in the laboratory or in meetings. I like my job, and I’m learning a lot, but I know there’s so much more to learn. Like anyone my age, I want to develop my career.
This is the remit of IEEE Graduates of the Last Decade (GOLD), a group within the IEEE dedicated to the needs of young professional engineers like me. Sounds sensible, you might say. But in this post, I want to go back a step. Is a group specially for young people really the best way to fulfil their needs?
The conventional wisdom is a resounding “yes”. Retaining student members as graduates is a known problem. The transition from student to professional isn’t easy. A community to hold our hands as we venture into the big harsh world would make it a tad less daunting. But there’s a missing link: whether a sub-community of graduates adds value to its umbrella community of engineers. What can it add?
The technical stuff
Let’s start with the nuts and bolts. Everyone knows that the engineering profession is one of constant learning, keeping up with new technologies whose half-lives are shorter than a university degree. Graduates, by virtue of inexperience, know almost nothing, so learning would really help.
But wait. When a profession involves constant learning, that means for everyone who’s in it, not just graduates. The space of useful knowledge is endless: those well-advanced in their careers would still do well to learn about a different perspective or a new innovation. Graduates, of course, would need more introductory material, rather than advanced courses. But are they alone in that need as well?
I’ve come to the conclusion that the best technical materials for graduates are the same as those for more experienced professionals. Why? Because everyone is inexperienced in all of the countless things they’ve yet to work with. They might have experience from elsewhere to help relate to a new topic, sure. But if you don’t know about TCP/IP, you don’t know about TCP/IP. Many of the free Communications Society tutorials are introductory. They’re aimed at young and advanced alike.
Similar logic applies to subtler knowledge, like a general feel for industry trends: while graduates need an initial grasp, keeping up is just as much work.
So the most valuable technical talks for young engineers are the ones that are organised (or should be organised) by Technical Chapters for everyone. GOLD could duplicate the work, but it seems like, well, duplication.
The other part is the non-technical stuff: the stuff engineers are notorious for sucking at. Communication skills, writing, leadership, management, pretty much anything not involving numbers. This is a more promising place to start. While best practice does change, the core of it doesn’t really. Once you’ve got the hang of it, the skills tend to stay useful.
So who would run these workshops? It’s on this question that I’ve stumbled. Many university business schools run short management courses, aimed at managers (not graduates) for a few thousand dollars. There exist training providers who run soft-skill courses, too, for less, but still a lot. The frugality of the IEEE tends to rule these out.
We have three options. We could fork out the money for someone who does this for a living. It’d be useful, for sure, but expensive. Or, sometimes we’re incredibly—incredibly—lucky to have an IEEE member who’s willing to offer their services for free. (I have met a total of one such member.) Not all accomplished engineers are qualified: having a skill and teaching it are different things. We’re talking about people who can prepare a course on this. Given that people do this for a living, it’s a heck of a lot of goodwill on their part—and that’s assuming we have access to such a rarity in the first place. The third option, then, is to have a volunteer who’s not qualified to run the session. The usefulness and professionalism in that is questionable.
Basically, what I’m saying is this: While soft skills are a laudable activity for young professionals’ groups, they’re not a practical one. Unless we’re prepared to start spending.
I said I was playing devil’s advocate. In reality, these are the questions that have been circling in my mind as vice-chair of IEEE GOLD NZ Central for the last two years. I and my committee have struggled to figure out what we can do that is genuinely useful for our members. We’ve asked local graduates what they would like to see. I’ve asked my colleagues too, several times. They don’t know.
I’ve looked around. Some groups run socials or networking events: these only work as a complement to an actually-useful programme. Some run “STEP” events: these only work if you already have a programme you can trumpet. Some run events promoting the IEEE. That’s silly. See my earlier post for why.
I want to believe that IEEE GOLD has a worthwhile place. I still believe in the fundamental basis for association: that we can do more together than we can individually. I haven’t lost all hope. But in the absence of compelling and non-token ideas for activities, I’m getting close.
(Pssst: Ideas welcome. Comment below.)